A gathering force

Grassroots coalitions commit to 'new' New Orleans
April 2, 2008

When the New Orleans levees buckled, they gave way to more than cascading waters. They exposed years of racial and economic inequity and launched a flood of new voices, grassroots coalitions and a reborn Episcopal Church, all working together for justice.

Shakoor Aljuwani is part of that reborn church. Last year, at 57, the longtime community activist, ex-Black Panther and former member of the Nation of Islam was baptized at the Easter Vigil, moved by "the sincerity of the Episcopal Church to work for change and the good of all" in post-Katrina New Orleans.

"I saw a real diocesan commitment to build a new New Orleans," Aljuwani said. "There was genuine comfort in their presence. I'd often doubted the sincerity in past relationships with various denominations, but I saw something powerful developing, a gathering force, and the enormity of what we were faced with made me search deeper and see the need, that I had to have faith in God in this survival process.

"I wouldn't have been able to do what I'm doing or to deal with the tremendous roller coaster ride this has been if I hadn't had faith and been able to learn to pray and to go to the community where other folks are putting their lives on the line," he said of his 12- and 14-hour days and six- and seven-day work weeks.

The Rev. Courtney Cowart, director of the diocese's disaster response, is another newer voice. She helped guide recovery efforts in post-Sept. 11 New York and recalled stark contrasts between the cities. "It was pretty clear that my work here was going to be focused on not so much the technical fixes of disaster recovery but the adaptive changes of the heart."

"It was obvious that race was coloring the response," said Cowart, who was at Trinity Church, Wall Street, a few blocks away when planes struck the World Trade Towers. "There, all the walls between people came down, and everyone was reaching out to help everyone else in any way they possibly could. It was an incredibly transforming experience."

In New Orleans, she said, "one hundred percent of my work here has been forging relationships outside the Episcopal Church and in the African-American community and working to carve out coalitions and initiatives that are very countercultural, from privileged white folks and the establishment church to grassroots activists. They just never worked together like this."

Transformation's challenge and potential
At the height of the Hurricane Katrina fallout and flooding, when many were already gone or on their way out of the city, Aljuwani was on his way in.

"I had been watching it in the media, and I figured the whole story wasn't being told," said Aljuwani, who had been living in Florida. "It bothered me that there were no stories of heroism."

A community activist for decades in Mississippi, Brooklyn, Harlem, Chicago and other places, he posed as a cameraman, "working with an L.A. Weekly reporter I knew because it was the only way a black man was able to get through the checkpoints and to interview people evacuated to the Superdome," he said.

Two years later, he acknowledged activists still had their work cut out for them.

"It is such a massive effort," especially because of a lack of affordable housing, adequate education and employment and many other issues, he said.

But it "is the greatest challenge and the greatest potential," he added. "People have been cracked open, and in that there is an openness to try something new.

People are coming back to the community. Church is more important, family is more important, people are working together like never before. There's a sense of hopefulness and optimism."

There also is a need, he said, for "a truth-and-reconciliation practice patterned on what's happened in South Africa. For the city to heal, there's got to be some truth-telling."

Focus on youth
Grassroots coalitions like the Common Ground Collective and All Congregations Together have sparked hopes for "a new civil rights movement" of support across races, denominations and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In October 2006, Aljuwani began working with the Homecoming Center at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, an historically African-American congregation founded in 1855 that has been active in recovery efforts.

Aljuwani is "a leading voice" in the new New Orleans recovery efforts, said Broderick Webb, 38, an independent filmmaker and native New Orleanian. They met through Webb's work with the Downtown Neighborhood Improvement Association Education Committee.

Alarmed by the lack of opportunities for youth, poor educational facilities and a survey of McDonough High School students in 2006 which revealed that "30 percent were here without a parent and were staying with an aunt, cousin, boyfriend, or other people, and were taking on responsibility and roles most young people in his country don't have to worry about," Webb said, the Fyre Youth Squad, or FYS, was born.

"We wanted to begin to engage young people hanging out in the streets. We saw them everywhere we went," Webb said. "Fyre, in New Orleans slang, means hot or cool, a flame, something positive or attractive -- 'That's a cool jacket you're wearing.' People like to think it embodies young people, that it represents more than a reformation but a revolution in public education."

FYS helped to organize press conferences about unacceptable school conditions, including disparities in the distribution of resources post-Katrina. It focused on John McDonough High School as "a poster child" for the school system's dysfunction and inability to respond to the crisis and even pulled off an appearance by actor and comedian Bill Cosby.

Summer camps and after-school programs were initiated, along with a diocese-funded entrepreneurial project where young people will work in their own businesses, selling T-shirts and "snowballs" or snow cones, as well as in a video media business. Plans are in the works for a spring college campus tour. "We see it as a good way to provide valuable leadership development and financial support to keep young people out of crime," Aljuwani said.

"A lot of people in our country," Webb said, "believe if they had been living during a time of great atrocity, like for instance, the American slave trade or Nazi Holocaust, they would not have stood idly by, they would have stood up.

"Well, we are living in a time like that. We are the system effectively delivering young people by the hundreds of thousands into bondage because of educational systems that don't meet their needs. They have no access to the things necessary to meet the demands of society.

"Instead, they are routed into negative choices that lead them into the penitentiary and the cemetery. It's as grave a situation as in 1850 or 1937."


-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in Province VIII (the Province of the Pacific). She is based in Los Angeles.

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